The Critical Points: The One Thing Loyalty Programs Should Do to Instantly Improve

Apr 20, 2018

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Each month in his column “The Critical Points,” TPG Senior Points and Miles Contributor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position, but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

Every airline and hotel loyalty program has quirks known to its frequent users. These quirks vary as far as the level of frustration they induce, but I’ll bet without thinking too hard you can come up with at least one extra website click or one program policy that just makes your blood boil or head fall in frustration. Some of these consumer-unfriendly policies may be the result of a complex problem that have years of data and decisions behind it. Other items that annoy us may be a simple IT oversight.

Without trying to get you too spun up, let’s take a look at 12 loyalty programs and discuss one action each could take to instantly improve our satisfaction as loyal guests. I recognize some of these problems are complex and would probably take months of effort and expense to solve, but others should be quick fixes. In fact, fixing many of the simple problems would make me just as happy as alleviating the more complex ones.

Alaska: Delineate Mixed Cabin Awards on the Award Calendar

The award search calendar currently doesn’t delineate mixed cabin itineraries, making it essentially a useless tool. And to the rookie user, it’s downright dangerous. Take the example below of a search from Sydney (SYD) to Atlanta (ATL) showing first class travel dates for the month of July:

To the untrained user, it looks like there are plenty of dates available to enjoy your long haul, first class transpacific flight back from Australia. But this is all American Airlines space and the likelihood of any of the long haul segments actually being in first class is 1%. You have to click through to the individual search dates to find out that, indeed, every single option on every single day is mixed cabin itineraries with the long haul leg in economy:

The recliner seat icon next to each date signifies a mixed cabin itinerary, so how difficult would it be to put this icon directly on the calendar search results? Without it, the calendar doesn’t paint an accurate picture of premium cabin award availability.

American: Give Us an Award Routing Rule to Celebrate

Of the legacy carriers, American’s award routing rules are the most restrictive. No open jaws, no stopovers, and you can only transit from one region to another via very specific routes (no transiting third regions, even if it makes geographical sense) or you’ll be charged for two separate awards.

I get unbelievably irritated looking at these bulkheads still flying in 2018, with the AA logo of course.
I get unbelievably irritated looking at these bulkheads still flying in 2018, with the AA logo of course. Found here.

United has the Excursionist Perk and Delta sometimes gives you non-geographically savvy results that you can use to your advantage, so something needs to get me excited about the AAdvantage program, especially at a time when award availability — while now better in 2018 — is still fairly awful and the hodgepodge fleet (transcon on a legacy US Airways A321 in 2018??) makes it practically impossible to tell what hard product I’m going to get when I fly AA.

Delta: Add Award Charts Back (and Stop ‘Researching’)

It doesn’t matter what it looks like. It doesn’t matter if it has peak, off-peak, and standard dates. It doesn’t matter if it has 12 tiers each with a 20,000 mile range and it could even be as specific as to say “There’s a 5,000 mile surcharge per segment because you live in Atlanta, because we can.” Just tell me in any way, shape, or form what an award ticket is supposed to cost.

P.S.: Stop “researching” the boarding process. You’ve boarded thousands of flights every day for decades. How is boarding not already figured out? Go spend one week at Tokyo’s Haneda (HND) airport in the domestic terminal and watch the Japanese board a Boeing 777-300 in 12 minutes. Just watch for a week straight, then institute what they do there in Atlanta. (Of course, that means you have to get rid of checked baggage fees so not every passenger has a rollaboard, backpack and personal item.)

Etihad: Only One Thing?!

I give Etihad a lot of grief, but it continually provides me outsized value redemptions on partner airlines, assuming I’m willing to put in the effort. Etihad’s ground service is renowned for being below poor, the airline is currently in full-on cost cutting mode and booking these fantastic partner award tickets is not any easier today than it was in 2016.

So it’s tough to pick only one thing to improve, but the interface Etihad currently employs for partner redemptions has to be bettered. From what I can tell, Etihad agents must go into a different menu for each partner and then manually query the partner on a flight-by-flight basis to see if the partner will grant Etihad an award seat. It’s extremely time intensive and reliant upon having an agent who knows what they’re doing — both major hurdles to award booking success for the majority of Etihad Guest’s customers.

Hilton: Add Suite Upgrades for Diamonds

Both Hyatt and the new combined Marriott/SPG loyalty program have confirmable suite upgrades for top-tier elite members. Suite upgrades are also complimentary at check-in if a base suite is available. But the only options for a Hilton Diamond to end up with a suite are to pay for one at booking or rely on getting very lucky with a check-in agent. After all the recent hotel program changes, I believe 2019 will see the biggest crop of hotel free agents looking to potentially find a new home. So Hilton, give Diamonds a path to suites and push free agents over the top to becoming Honors loyalists.

Hyatt: Stop Properties From Manipulating Award Availability

Hyatt likes to tout that it has no blackout dates for redeeming points at properties, assuming a “standard” room is available. So what have properties done? They’ve divided their standard rooms into further subcategories to create the lowest possible number of standard rooms, making it difficult to redeem award nights.

The Andaz Maui is just one Hyatt property known for playing games with award availability.

For example, two identical King Rooms on the 3rd and 4th floors will be split into a “Standard King” and a “Deluxe King,” with the room on the 4th floor no longer a standard room. Once the single standard king is booked, there’s no more award availability. The Hyatt Regency Aruba was recently brought to task for playing such games and it appears Hyatt’s corporate powers-that-be inserted themselves to bring the property back to reality. Don’t forget the other games Hyatt properties play to make redeeming points difficult, like minimum stay requirements unique to award redemptions.

IHG: Make the Free Annual Credit Card Night Good at Any Property

I don’t think this needs any further explanation, am I right?

JetBlue: Open More Partners to Award Redemptions

I enjoy flying JetBlue more than any domestic carrier and have few complaints about the TrueBlue program or Mosaic status. The revenue based program is straightforward and, for the most part, points are valued at a fair amount. What I’d like to see is though is for JetBlue to continue to step out of the Southwest aura of a stand-alone carrier and embrace its current airline partners for enriched benefits and redemption opportunities.

TrueBlue award chart for Hawaiian economy redemptions.
The JetBlue TrueBlue award chart for Hawaiian economy redemptions.

Currently, you can only redeem TrueBlue points on Hawaiian (and not at particularly great award prices). Let’s open up Emirates, Icelandair, Singapore, Silver Airways, and South African to point redemptions and develop these partnerships to get consumers further interested in TrueBlue and the Barclays JetBlue co-branded cards.

Marriott: Establish 3x as the Non-Bonus Spend Earn Rate

Starting in August, your SPG Starpoints will be combined with your current Marriott points at a 1:3 ratio. By default, that means your current non-bonused spend on SPG co-branded cards earns 3x points of the new currency. But once the new program is in effect, these cards will only earn 2x of the new currency on non-bonus spend. A 33% devaluation in credit card rewards is enough to make these cards go from top slot of the wallet to sock drawer placeholders. This is the largest devaluation in the program combination announced thus far.

Southwest: Extend the Booking Schedule

Today’s business is complex, busy, and global — meaning I need to plan more than six months in advance. I understand Southwest’s non-traditional point-to-point operations method naturally limits the ability to plan in the manner of the legacy carrier hub-and-spoke operations, but it’s difficult to sit and wait for the schedule to be extended every 3 months in order to pounce on speculative flights. If I have a conference in nine months surrounded by three other meetings, I’ll book a legacy carrier flight to be sure that, at least at the time of booking, I can get where I need to be during a busy time.

Spirit: Extend the 90 Day Expiration Policy

It’s hard to complain about paying $50 to fly, and I certainly don’t fly to garnish as many Free Spirit miles as possible. But if you’re going to offer a frequent flyer program, you need to give customers an adequate timeframe to collect and redeem their miles.

Without activity every 90 days or monthly spend on the Spirit co-branded credit card, your Free Spirit miles expire. Expand it out to six months. If you don’t fly Spirit at least every six months, you probably won’t ever earn enough miles for a free flight anyway.

United MileagePlus: Eliminate the $75 Close-in Ticketing Fee

If you want to book a United award within 21 days of departure and you don’t have elite status, you’ll be charged an additional $75 to utilize your miles. It costs United not a penny extra to book your award ticket, say, 18 days out from departure as it does 22 days from departure. This is a great example of an airline charging you just because they can — it’s incredibly easy ancillary revenue for the airline. I cannot stand this fee and consider it perhaps the most offensive in the entire airline industry (yes, also you, American AAdvantage).

Bottom Line

Perhaps some of the above issues don’t irk you to the degree they get me riled up, but I imagine many do, plus you undoubtedly have your own annoyances that routinely make you question if this is all worth it. I have no realistic expectation that Delta is going to re-add award charts next month, or that United will ditch its $75 fine fee, but I know they would be consumer friendly moves in a relatively devaluation-rich arena.

Whatever your number one issue is with your loyalty program of choice, be sure to politely and tactfully reach out and voice your frustrations via the generic complaint form or on social media. The squeaky wheel gets the grease… and sometimes even a few gratuitous points and miles.

Check out the previous edition of The Critical Points: Why I’ve Retired ‘Skypesos’ from My Vocabulary.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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